Understanding the Gospel of Mark
By Jonathan Rutherford
I initially got interested in Mark through my study of the historical Jesus. Mark is important for study of the historical Jesus because it is the first gospel written, and therefore the first account of Jesus we have. As anyone with an interest in history will know that makes Mark a very valuable historical source.
As I studied Mark, however, I become more fascinated by it as a work of literature. I now have no hesitation in calling it a literary masterpiece. I also have come to the view that, despite thousands of years of scholarship and study, the meaning and message of the gospel has largely been misunderstood. Hence why I wanted to speak tonight and share with you my thoughts about Mark.
The conclusion I have come to, along with a few unorthodox scholars, is that Mark is a theological allegory. Mark is an allegory because although it appears to be a straightforward account of the life of Jesus, ‘the content and structure of the narrative are carefully arranged to convey deeper, non-literal meaning’ (Carrier, 2014; 390). This is accomplished through the use of symbolic keywords, ironies and literary allusions (Carrier, 390). According to this view, Jesus is more like the lead protagonist in a symbolic drama designed to communicate non-literal theological meaning and values, as opposed to the focal individual of a historical biography.
My purpose is not to assess the value of Mark as an historical source for Jesus. Instead I want to focus on the possible symbolic meaning and message underlying the narrative. If Mark is an allegory, what were the hidden truths he wished to convey? What non-literal messages did he intend his ancient readers and listeners to pick up on, and which have, sadly I believe, lost in translation?
I must also warn that my intention is not to suggest ways in which Mark may be relevant for us today. My interest is in understanding what Mark wished to communicate with his first century audience. This may, or may not, hold relevance to us. For me, it holds minimal relevance, but I still find it fascinating – I hope you agree. I also must say that Mark could be the subject of an entire course. There is much more than could be said about it, which I will not cover tonight and, I am sure, I still have much to learn.
With that said, I will argue that there are three central elements to Mark’s allegory:
1) Promoting Paul’s Gospel
2) A polemic against the Jerusalem based Christian Church
3) A polemic against the Judean Jews